Your Guide to Volcano Movies

Rocky Planet iconRocky Planet
By Erik Klemetti
Nov 12, 2012 11:15 PMNov 20, 2019 12:02 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

I get a lot of questions about what I think of the various movies that have come out over the years that feature volcanic activity. So, I thought I'd try to write a few capsule review/commentaries on the many volcano movies I've seen - and trust me, I haven't seen them all (e.g., 2012, Joe vs. the Volcano, Magma: Volcanic Disaster). However, I have seen a lot of them ... and I have to admit, no matter how silly premise or how bad the science, I do get a kick out of most of them. Sure, there are some that are such an abomination unto mankind that I can't even appreciate them on a Satellite of Love level, but that is the price we pay, isn't it? It is interesting that there aren't a huge number of Hollywood films that have used a volcanic eruption as a central theme - but we have seen an upswing in made-for-TV movies and docudramas (I've included a couple of these) as special effects become cheaper. Here's how this will work - I've scored the films on four major areas: premise, science, effects, acting and thrills -- all on a scale of 1 (low) to 9 (high) and then averaged the scores to give the film its VEI - Volcanic Entertainment Index. I couldn't decide on an order, so chronological it is! The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)

A pyroclastic flow from 1935's "Last Days of Pompeii". By today's standards, it looks more like a lahar, but great special effects for the era. Image: screenshot. There have actually been three versions of "The Last Days of Pompeii" - in 1913, 1935 and 1960 (and another big-budget Pompeii movie is in the works right now). Hoping for a "classic age of cinema" retelling of Pompeii, I instead got a lot of boring backstory with gladiators and class struggle, then maybe 10 minutes of volcanic mayhem where the evil Romans get their come-uppance and the hero gets saved by Jesus (I think). The special effects, for the time, were quite impressive but they got a little carried away with the massive earthquake that seemed to be occurring at the same time. Needless to say, science was a bit lacking: Premise 5 (at least it was based on a real event); Science 1 (the volcano is there); Effects 4 (good for the time); Acting 3; Thrills 3 (too little, too late) - VEI 3.2Krakatoa: East of Java (1969) I've seen this movie a couple times now, and once you get past the poor geography, well, there isn't much else left. As much as I try to remember things that happened in the film, all I get is lots of model boats being washed about and a exploding fireball island set. It is hard to believe that Hollywood could undersell this eruption, but "Krakatoa: East of Java" makes the eruption seem kind of tame - see the revamped docudrama "Krakatoa" (2005) that at least captures the magnitude of the eruption. If any film begs a modern remake, it would be this. On the plus side, it does have Maximillian Schell. Premise 4 (real event, poorly done); Science 1 (nope); Effects 2 (pretty poor); Acting 3; Thrills 2 (a bit of a snore) - VEI 2.4When Time Ran Out (1980)This movie, starring Paul Newman before salad dressing, arrived at the tail end of the 1970s disaster film heyday ... and it is very confusing. Supposedly based on the 1902 eruption of Pelee, the movies doesn't even seem to be set in the same ocean, let alone with the right type of volcano. Somehow, Pelee becomes Kilauea and there are rivers of lava and they decided to build the volcano observatory hanging out over the crater. There is, of course, the evil developer/hotel owner who gets his just deserts and the children all get saved, but considering the events that "inspired" the film, it was pretty boring. It did, however, have Ernest Borgnine, who was contractually required to be in every disaster movie 1973-1982. Premise 3 (took a real disaster and made it terrible); Science 1 (if I could give it negative points, I would); Effects 2 (shoddy); Acting 2 (Newman dials this one in); Thrills 2 (boring) - VEI 2Dante's Peak (1997)

Grandma does some remodeling in 1997's "Dante's Peak". Image: screenshot. Hollywood likes to do movies in pairs - hence the 1997 volcano duo of "Volcano" and "Dante's Peak". Sure, there hadn't been a volcano movie for almost 17 years, but then, suddenly, we get two. This is the eternal struggle for volcanologists - which film do you like better? I don't even want to count how many times I've seen these films, but they are required views for many classes, especially when you want to look at science portrayed in major motion pictures. For those of you who haven't seen "Dante's Peak" (Warning: Spoilers ahead), Dr. Harry Dalton (played by Pierce "Remington Steele" Brosnan) is a USGS geologist sent to check out the rumbling at fictional Cascade volcano Dante's Peak. Of course, there is a evil developer and grumpy grandmothers in the town of the same name, so when Harry decided Dante's Peak is going to erupt, people aren't happy. Most of the action involves Harry trying to save the mayor's kids and grandmother (and dog) from the volcano - which erupts every kind of volcanic product imaginable - lava flows, ash, pyroclastic flows, lahars - and even turns a lake to acid that can eat through metal. In the end, Harry's boss, who resisted Harry's pleas to alert the citizens, gets wiped out by the volcano, but Harry, the mayor (Linda Hamilton) and the kids outrun a pyroclastic flow and survive. Now, here is what I think: I hate Dante's Peak. It isn't really the lack of much scientific basics - sure, they mostly understand how volcanic monitoring works but they miss the boat on how volcanoes actually work. It isn't the acting - Linda and Pierce are good and believable. It isn't the coffee-loving USGS geolackeys (that is accurate). However, it is the combination of everything - the over-the-top response from Harry about the volcanic rumblings, the resistance from his boss, the recalcitrant grandmother, the deus ex machina mine shelter. The damn dog jumping in the truck as they drive over an ACTIVE LAVA FLOW. The film is, at the same time, trying to be realistic while being wildly unrealistic, and in most cases, there was no need to be unrealistic when it comes to an eruption in the Cascades threatening a town. But no, we can't take the time to actually portray real events ("Dante's Peak" lacked a scientific adviser). Sure, it can be exciting but, for me, it was so frustrating that I couldn't get over it. Premise 2 (Cascade eruption = good; everything else = bad ; Science 3 (individually, they got things OK, but not as a whole); Effects 7 (pretty darn good); Acting 5 (can't complain); Thrills 5 (like the science, exciting individual events that shouldn't go together) - VEI 4.4Volcano (1997)

Fire fountain coming out of the LA subway in 1997's "Volcano". Image: screenshot. After reading the "Dante's Peak" review, you are probably dreading what I have to say about "Volcano". Guess what? I love it (mostly). I'll get to why in a second, but first, the plot (warning: spoilers). A volcano erupts out of the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles. Emergency Director Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones) has to deal with it while geologist Amy Barnes (Anne Heche) tries to help Roark understand what is going on. Lava cascades down Wilshire Boulevard and through subway tunnels. A building is detonated to block the lava and send it to the sea. A fire fountain erupts out of a manhole. Mt. Wilshire is born in downtown L.A. Need I say more? Now, you're thinking - come on, this is ludicrous ... and it is. Yet, that is the beauty of "Volcano". Unlike "Dante's Peak", the writers choose a scenario so outlandish that realism gets thrown out the window ... but, actually it doesn't. Sure, some of the portrayal of the pre-eruption events are so wrong - like Dr. Barnes' friend dying in the subway tunnel or the subway director melting like the wicked witch. However, if an eruption were to occur in a major city and it was a (mostly) effusive eruption, this is almost exactly how you could deal with it! Using cars/buildings are barriers. Water cannons and helicopter drops to cool the surface of the flow. Redirection into existing infrastructure to guide the flow to the sea. Sure, the lava was just a little too runny for its own good, but it wasn't water (until it gets "superheated"). The premise is out of the window, but the response isn't. You likely couldn't do a precision drop of a building in 30 minutes like they end up doing at the end, but it's a movie, so time is compressed. So, what are the problems in "Volcano"? Too much fluffy ash, that is one. An eruption like this might produce some ash, but it would like be denser, something like Pele's hair/tears that fall at Kilauea. Eruptions don't realize plumes of fire and superheated gas ... and then suck them all back up and return to pre-eruption conditions. There isn't likely any magma under the La Brea tar pits. The racial allegory at the end is way over the top (but this is post- Rodney King Los Angeles). However, once the disaster starts, the pace is fast, the action is exciting and the conclusion is as ridiculous as the premise. Premise 1 (Yeah, not really); Science 4 (beyond the premise and extra ash, the lava behaves more or less like lava); Effects 8 (the lava is great); Acting 6 (Tommy Lee Jones, Don Cheadle, Gaby Hoffman and Anne Heche all do great, specially Jones); Thrills 8 (Can get over the top, but whatever) - VEI 5.4Supervolcano (2005) "Supervolcano" wasn't a cinema release, but it is one of the "big three" volcano movies. It was made by the BBC and Discovery Channel and centered around everyone's favorite caldera, Yellowstone. Done as a docudrama, the film follows YVO scientist-in-charge Rick Lieberman (Mike Riley) as he deals with another caldera-forming eruption at Yellowstone. He has to juggle the media inquires, scientific dissent and then has to make his way out of the disaster zone itself with his brother-in-law. Some of his team survives the disaster, but not all of them - while FEMA and the national government have to deal with the ramifications of the eruption (like Mexico closing its borders to Americans). Really, I feel like I should like "Supervolcano" more than I do. It gets a lot of the science right. As I've written before, it gets across a lot of the issues of uncertainty in volcanic hazard monitoring and mitigation. The cast is strong - especially if you like playing the "name that Stargate SG-1 alum". The special effects (see below) and tone are spot on. Yet, each time I see it, I like it less. Maybe I've become oversaturated in the "looming threat" of Yellowstone, but it just doesn't have the repeat watchability that something like "Volcano" has. I wish I could explain why, but it just isn't there.

The caldera unzips in 2005's "Supervolcano". Image: screenshot. Premise 3 (Unrealistic, but portrayed with the appropriate gravitas); Science 6 (doesn't get it all right, but not bad); Effects 8 (Some of the caldera eruption scenes are great); Acting 4 (TV movie acting - but I do like Jock and Col. Maybourne as the USGS director); Thrills 5 (Sure, lots of action, but I can't really feel for the characters as much) - VEI 5.2Disaster Zone: Volcano in New York (2006)  Ah yes, back to the trash. An evil scientist wants to drill into the crust under Brooklyn for energy, only to accidentally hit a "pocket of magma". Badness ensues and Costas Mandylor is part of a drilling crew that has to save the city. Needless to say, this is even more remotely unlikely than "Volcano" and its La Brea eruption. It is amusing to me that the female scientist is called "Dr. Foxley". Why not "Dr. Sexypants"? I wish I could unwatch this. Premise 1 (No way in heck); Science 1 (What is science again?); Effects 3 (cheap even for a TV movie); Acting 1 (no, thank you); Thrills 3 (New York is hit by a volcano) - VEI 1.8 There you go - maybe I can follow this with some TV episodes that features volcanoes as well. Anyway, feel free to add your thoughts about any of these films (or more) in the comments - maybe we can even find some other volcano-related movies in the process.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.